Ruth Dayan, matriarch of one of Israel’s most famous families, passed away on February 5, just one month short of her 104th birthday. The story of her life, which she described as cinematic, is inextricably intertwined with that of the Jewish state.
She was born in Haifa in 1917 — the same year as the Balfour Declaration, the daughter of new immigrants from Russia, Rahel and Zvi Schwartz. They would become part of the “Jerusalem aristocracy,” friends with the top echelons of both the British military government and Arab leaders.
Ruth Dayan was the first wife of Moshe Dayan, the legendary and charismatic former defense and foreign affairs Minister and IDF chief of staff. She was the mother of former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, Yael Dayan, the late filmmaker Assi Dayan, and late sculptor Udi Dayan. Her sister, Reuma, was married to Ezer Weizman, the seventh president of the state. The extended Dayan family included writers, statesmen, poets and musicians and were Israel’s favorite tabloid subject.
The mother of the Israeli craft industry, Ruth Dayan was a celebrated social and peace activist for decades and led numerous projects to benefit minorities, including immigrants and Arabs. She also helped found Variety Israel, an organization helping special needs children, in the 1960s.
The Six Day War had made Ruth’s husband, Moshe Dayan, an Israeli national hero, one of the state’s most famous faces with his iconic eye patch. He was also, famously, an unrepentant womanizer. After a bittersweet 37 years of marriage, Ruth divorced him in 1971.
In recent years she claimed it was political differences, and not his cheating, that were the real cause of the divorce. But in her remarkably frank 1973 autobiography (Or Did I Dream the Dream? written with Helga Dudman), she wrote “The years have finally accomplished what I once never dreamed could be done - put the shattered pieces together in a new pattern of survival. The reality of living with a legend was, in the end, unbearable. Today I can relive the anguish of that time, but I am no longer the same helpless woman.”
By the time of their divorce Ruth Dayan was a legend herself. She was already famous as the founder and moving force behind the fashion house and later chain of stores, Maskit. It marketed high-quality arts, fashions and handicrafts, providing a showcase for the talents of immigrant artists and artisans, while helping them earn a living.
As an early proponent of women’s empowerment, Dayan’s strategy of organizing the talents of underprivileged women and returning the earnings directly to them became a model in Israel and worldwide.
After Maskit closed, Dayan became involved in various projects assisting Bedouin and Palestinian women to earn money through their traditional embroidery and jewelry designs. Until her late 90s she would drive her own car to West Bank Palestinian villages and Negev Bedouin towns where she had founded arts and crafts workshops for women,
Over the years Dayan received many awards and honors for her work and advocacy, including the President’s Medal.
She became a leading social and peace activist, with a lifetime of doing volunteer work. Even in her last decade she was a one-woman welfare organization, constantly helping other people – often total strangers – with no reservations about using her own vast connections.
“I can’t get involved in public politics, but I do a lot privately. I do what I can,” she told The Jerusalem Report in a 2016 interview. “There are a lot of people that can’t take care of themselves, Jews and Arabs. They’ve been part of my life from day one. They know they can call me day and night.”
Ruth Dayan knew everyone active in the country since the 1930s, and had an extraordinary memory for details. One could name any Who’s Who or Who Was, and she was sure to produce a story, and a delicious one at that.
Dayan maintained a 40-year friendship with Palestinian journalist and poet Raymonda Tawil, whose daughter Suha married Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Their extraordinary close friendship is the subject of a 2015 book, An Improbable Friendship, by Anthony David.
During an interview when she was 95, I asked if she ever got tired. “No. When you live on a moshav for 15 years and get up at 4 a.m. to milk, and must work all day, you know how to keep going.”
That moshav was Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, where she and Moshe met and made their home for many years – and where she was laid to rest.■